Before I went through the temple for my own Initiatory work and Endowment, my fiance, a returned missionary who had frequented the local Provo temple often since his return, sat me down and went over the entire ceremony, word for word, leaving out only those few things that he covenanted specifically not to reveal outside the temple. However, he did explain that there were certain things, termed “signs and tokens,” which he withheld from me, adding that each had symbolic meaning that is to be shared only in the temple.
[Right there. I heard it. Somebody gasped when they read "signs and tokens." Don't worry. That's as specific as I get.]
When he finished, I remember looking at him askance. Granted, I was a convert of just a few years, but I’d been given the impression ever since my conversion that I’d go to the temple for the first time and learn any number of new and fascinating things. I said to Bret, “Everything you just told me is in the scriptures.”
He nodded, said most first-timers don’t realize that, but that there really isn’t anything new except the “signs and tokens” and they basically represent the covenants I’d be asked to make in the temple, covenants pertaining to obedience, chastity, sacrifice and sharing. None of these covenants were a suprise to me either. They seemed to be truly essential, even basic, stuff for a follower of Jesus Christ.
Well, ok. So off I went to the temple. I’ve heard many first-timers come away stunned. Sometimes its the fact the temple is more ritualized than the average LDS sacrament meeting that gets the blame. But sometimes first timers purport that the temple ceremoney gave too much overwhelming information. I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience, but my first experience in the temple was, from start to finish, magnificent. Why? I tend to think it was because I may have been better prepared than most people. Certainly not better spiritually prepared than anyone else, but better temporally prepared; my future husband’s verbatim pre-view allowed me to leave surprise behind and simply experience each moment. I knew exactly what to expect. Before I attended my first time, he and I talked about the symbolism of the temple, straight down to the curtains and color of the upholstery. When I received my Endowment, I received it with a sense of familiarity, not fear of the unknown, because I had been prepared so thoroughly.
My then-future husband’s frank approach is one I’ve adopted. I expect, when my children go through the temple, either he or I will prepare them as he prepared me. Of course, these discussions will be safe and intimate, will be between not only believers, but people we know, love, and trust. This situation is very different from writing about the temple for strangers.
Picture this: A believing Latter-day Saint is stopped by a complete stranger in a bookstore. That stranger asks about the LDS temple ceremonies and the believing Latter-day Saint carefully unfolds the endowment ceremony, minus signs and tokens. Personally, I have a hard time thinking the stranger will remain interested, but I have an even harder time imagining the believing Saint will successfully paint a picture that captures the reverence he or she actually feels for the temple.
Of course, this scenario isn’t likely to occur. But if we write about the temple, we are essentially reliving the temple ceremony with a total stranger. But unlike in the bookstore setting, the writer who writes about the temple is at a greater communication disadvantage because he/she is unable to analyze the audience’s expressions and adapt his/her rhetorical approach to the audience. Or, for that matter, choose to cease talking altogether. After all, many argue, the writer has little control over what the reader actually recieves.
If we can’t control what the reader receives, or how they understand us, should we refrain from ever writing about the temple? Some writers think so.
But I don’t see how it is possible to completely cover the Mormon experience without forging, to some degree, into the Mormon Sacred, including the temple. Of course, not every story would require a direct entrance to the temple, but if we are writing, say, a novel about a devout LDS family, its unlikely the temple could realistically be left out. Most of the time such stories are written by Mormons for Mormons, so code words or tag sentiments carry sufficient weight to communicate with the audience. In short fiction, of course, the focus is narrowed and a story about a devout LDS person might not include reference to the temple experience and the impact it has on the character’s worldview.
I suspect some LDS writers gravitate to one type of story, genre, or audience based upon their willingness to approach the temple in the written word. I’m comfortable with doing so–though I don’t find it easy–and find my preferred genre (lit fic) suitable for my outlook. Those LDS writers who are less comfortable in writing about the temple may be more willing to either write for the mainstream LDS audience or write in a genre, like sf/f, that dodges the Mormon faith completely. All approaches, I think, add to the Mormon canon. I’m not here to argue that writers should or must be more open to writing about the temple. To borrow some Mormon-speak, LDS writers should do as they feel “called” to do.
But for those of us who feel okay in carrying our tales inside the LDS temple–to whatever degree–there ought to be some discussion about HOW we can make that work. And so here we are. However, before launching into the HOW, lets talk about how NOT to do it.
Mormon writers who want to enlist the temple or temple imagery in their stories to whatever degree should be careful to limit their focus to that which is necessary. The temptation, I think, is to over-tell, or over-explain. When I wrote “Clothing Esther,” I set out to write a story that was both sacred and spoke of sacred things. For those who haven’t read “Clothing Esther,” which is available under Read Free, the story is about a faithful LDS mother who takes upon herself the difficult task of dressing for burial her beloved mother-in-law, a woman who has been her companion for many years. When a Latter-day Saint who has been through the endowment ceremony is dressed for the grave, the temple undergarments, as well as the ceremonial temple clothes, are donned. So I had a lot of sacred to deal with.
- The love for the deceased woman is sacred
- The temple garment is sacred
- The ceremonial clothes are sacred
- The act of dressing the dead is sacred
I understood when I began to write that I couldn’t very well speak of all these sacred things without speaking specifically of the temple, though I wasn’t sure from the outset exactly where in the temple I would end up going. It surprised me to discover that that moment would revolve around the rite of Initiatory, but it did. I chose this ceremony because of its specificity to gender, to the roles gender plays, and the roles gender played in the lives of these two mothers. I did not, however, bother to write out the entire ceremony, circa 1975. Why? Because writing the whole thing out would emphasize the rote, the action, not the tenderness beneath, not the meaning and not the sacred element. I wrote only:
Inside each Mormon temple is a place which is like no other—a quiet, veiled-in space where initiate blessings are granted, woman to woman; a place where two sisters in faith, two strangers, stand before one another, look one another in the eye and touch one soul against the other, fingertip to flesh, and repeat the words of a blessing and an anointing, the undefiled intimacy of which reflects the very depths of God’s eternal love for woman, and through her, for all his children. And Mary has been there.
I struggled with myself the day I brought this story in to my writing group. Quite frankly, my writing group (The Rowlett Writers’ Workshop in Rowlett, TX) is predominately (if not entirely) evangelical Christian. On my first visit, I was asked what I write. I took a deep breath and said I write about the Mormon culture. Their suspicion of me was palpable. But I forged ahead, bringing in my work and receiving their advice. I wanted to learn how a non-LDS audience–even a nearly-hostile-to-Mormons audience–received what I had to say in the way I had to say it. Bringing in “Clothing Esther” made me tremble. Truth spoken.
While I was nervous about how they’d react to the garments and ceremonial clothes, I was particularly worried about their reaction to the paragraph I quote above. Would they push me for more? Would they “get it” at all? Would they reject the story altogether for its sacred intimacy? Would they mock?
Of course, these people were looking me in the face. They are kind people who had accepted me as part of their group, so I didn’t expect to be skewered alive. But they are serious writers and would’ve let me have it if they felt confused or lost or alienated or whatever negative thing it was they felt. Interestingly, not a single person isolated that passage as a problem, even though we Latter-day Saints understand it to be very vague. In fact, it was highlighted as particularly poignant by many. I felt no suspicion in their attitudes, no offense. Instead, I picked up reverence.
And so I learned that, even in writing for non-LDS people, sacred temple moments can be constructed in a way to carry respect and that sense of holiness they deserve. More importantly, though, I learned that it isn’t necessary–and is likely unwise–to provide more information than is needed. There’s no need to write out the ceremony. What the writer needs to do, however, is capture the emotional essence of the sacred, to write divine emotion, while writing openly about the most sacred of Mormon rites. The remainder of my posts on this topic will focus on enriching our craft for just this purpose.